Prior to 1990, the New York City Board of Estimate was the governmental body responsible for budgeting and land-use decisions. This eight-member Board consisted of the Mayor, the Comptroller, and the President of the City Council, each of whom had two votes, and the five Borough Presidents, each of whom had one. In 1989, however, this setup was declared unconstitutional, as it gave a massive borough like Queens the same effective representation as the much less populous Staten Island. Under the new City Charter in 1990, most of the responsibilities of the Board were delegated to the City Council.
Ever since, the post of Borough President and its intended function have been rather vague. And yet, candidates are working hard to replace the four outgoing term-limited Borough Presidents this year. So far they’ve raised more than $5.3 million from donors and qualify for almost $1 million in public matching funds for a position that doesn’t have a very well-defined purpose.
Certainly you can still do a lot with the position, even if there’s not much in the official job description. The New York World looked into the creative ways in which the current Borough Presidents have wielded their power, from Marty Markowitz’s real estate development deals to Scott Stringer’s advanced wonkery. The Helen Marshall section was the least flattering part:
Why show up at all? Just take a vacation!
During her 12 years in office, Queens Borough President Marshall proved skeptics wrong by successfully promoting Queens as a destination of choice for vacationers.
She put her weight behind the creation of the first Queens license plate, planted a subway car next to her office and turned it into a tourist center and trumpeted at every occasion the borough’s slogan, “Visit Queens… See the World.”
But some would say that Marshall took her encouragements to holiday in Queens a bit too personally.
First, last year, the New York Post quoted exasperated sources in the president’s entourage venting their frustration at the president for being “AWOL” throughout much of the summer.
More recently, the Daily News got hold of her schedules and calculated that Marshall had taken a total of 41 business days off of work in 2012 alone — the equivalent of eight full weeks.
Conveniently, the City Charter doesn’t specify how many days of vacation borough presidents are allowed to take.
The 83-year-old Marshall fought back. She said she had been taking care of her husband, who had back surgery.
The perception of the Borough President’s uselessness is prevalent enough that Claire Shulman, the former Queens BP, wrote an Op-Ed to try to justify her position. Besides citing the discretionary fund that the BP can dole out, and how if the position didn’t exist, “Manhattan would walk away with all the resources that currently cover major projects in Queens,” Shulman concludes by bringing the whole issue back in a circle: “Don’t fool yourself – if you are elected by a country of two million people, that’s power and everyone listens!”